Memories Are Made of This…or are they?

Memory is a funny thing. You can rarely be sure about it. Recalling to mind an experience of the past is as much a work of creation as it is a reliable documentary activity. Perhaps more so.The point at which we remember something which, is of necessity after the event, we have other memories and experiences to load upon it. This changes however subtly, or even radically, our understanding of the original event.

Even writing stuff down to read at a later date doesn’t protect the integrity of the original event, because as soon as we read the description we are overlaying it with new perceptions from a later time.


Many arguments and disagreements at work are the result of two people remembering an event or an instruction differently. This is either because their understanding of the event was processed through their different receptors at the time and therefore interpreted differently; or because the act of remembering has skewed the way they recall the event.


In any case, holding out to have our version of the truth (our memory) accepted as the most reliable seems to be a pointless and provocative activity.


We try to get round this by putting everything in emails.  Hundreds of people get copied in to ensure a liberal smattering of our version of the truth. And we’ll dredge up those emails at a later date when something is in dispute or needs corroborating. It’s an evidence trail we leave like Hansel & Gretel’s breadcrumbs in the forest, which will lead us back to certainty.


Unfortunately, leaving the email trail is a misguided and wasteful strategy because even if it’s ever referred to again, it will be viewed from the perspective of a different time…that inevitably adds a different gloss.


Our justice system, which relies on witness statements given after an event, is easily hi-jacked by the fallibility of memory. I recently came face-to-face with a group of aggressive schoolboys who in very graphic and admirably creative terms described what they would like to do to my face and other parts of my body. But when I studied their mug-shots in the school files the next day, I couldn’t identify any of them.


This wasn’t a temporary lapse induced by trauma, or even a sign of my diminishing faculties. I would have been the same if I was twenty-something instead of forty-something. I couldn’t be sure: the memory wasn’t strong enough or accurate enough for me to be certain. Selecting a face from the mountain of mug-shots would have been tantamount to guesswork and led to a possible miscarriage of justice.


We take our memory for granted, and we rely on it to provide a photographic and filmic context for our lives. Yet, it is often little more than a faded sepia tint.


So the next time you get into a spat with a colleague about your understanding of what you think you agreed at some point in the past; or you fall out over your take on who said what and to who; try to remember that memory itself is a fabrication. It’s the breadcrumbs but not the loaf.


Make what you do in the moment count, but don’t expect to remember exactly what you did tomorrow.


About Tim Lambert

Management Consultant, Trainer, Coach and Author

Posted on February 8, 2012, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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